This is an updated version of an article I wrote for The Washington Post Outlook section, and later in Neighborhood America's National Neighborhood News.
Growing networks of people are interested in building online communities that enhance physical neighborhoods. A search, using the key word "neighborhood" on the free discussion listserv, Yahoo Groups, brings up thousands of neighborhood associations online. And a web search on the word "neighborhood" brings up millions of entries.
Granted, these "neighborhood nets" are mostly toddlers; some are still infants. Many have not yet found viable models to sustain both volunteers and local business development over the long haul. But if we look 10 years down the road there can be little doubt that information technology and the Internet will greatly expand local community networks, and change America's neighborhoods for the better.
I have seen the power of the Internet in my own neighborhood, a section of Takoma Park, MD. Takoma Park, a town of just 20,000 citizens, now has more than 100 online discussion groups and hundreds of web sites that have emerged mostly endogenously without any centralized effort or institutional sponsorship. I started an e-mail network almost spontaneously several years ago, when my next-door neighbor was mugged walking home from the bus stop at 6:30 p.m. Outraged, I sent out an e-mail to perhaps 20 neighbors, and within 24 hours, a dozen of them had volunteered for neighborhood patrols.
With that, our online network was born. It has gradually grown to include more than 180 residents in an eight-block area. We use it to quickly share information about contractors and crime, meetings and issues important to the neighborhood. I added a web site or interactive weblog to our online arsenal, so that neighbors can discuss things in depth, share photos, create their own web pages, and get to know each other better in a non-intrusive way.
Recreating village atmosphere
Using the Internet in this Washington, DC suburb, I've almost been able to re-create the Mayberry-like atmosphere of my boyhood in Wagram, N.C. (population 500). When I walk down the street now, not only I am more aware of my physical surroundings -- of who lives where -- but I am more likely to wave to people on the street, to notice when something looks unusual or out of place.
If a crime occurs, the e-mail network is used to communicate quickly with each other, to provide information to police and prosecutors. A neighbor posted a message saying her house had been broken into and a television was stolen. Another neighbor responded with the description of a man she saw carting off a television that very afternoon.
Caring for each other
When a neighbor fell ill at work and was found by a coworker without a pulse, friends feared the worst. The very afternoon she was rushed to the hospital to undergo an emergency operation, a neighbor posted an urgent message to the e-mail list, prayer vigils were immediately organized, and cooking chains were created to provide food for the family. The outpouring of support contributed to her recovery, she said later.
In another neighborhood, when a hit-and-run vehicle injured a young woman riding her bicycle through the neighborhood, resident David Bates provided first aid, and then posted an e-mail message recounting what he saw. A few days later, he posted another message reporting that the young woman had no medical insurance, was unable to return to her waitressing job because of her injury, and had $15,000 in medical bills. Several residents then sent her donations. Without the e-mail list, "most of them would have not have even known about the accident," said Nikolai Vishnevsky, creator of the town's first e-mail discussion group six years ago.
After a house burned down in our neighborhood, it sat for nearly two years. One day a neighbor posted a message to the discussion list complaining about the burnt out house. Other neighbors immediately and vigorously agreed, and another neighbor forwarded the messages to the city manager. She replied that afternoon, and announced that she was giving the owner of the house two weeks to tear down the remains and clear the property, or city bulldozers would roll. Finally, with a hard deadline and outraged neighbors breathing down his neck, the property owner in a matter of days thoroughly cleaned and tidied up the property.
In a nearby neighborhood, when Alpha McPherson learned that an insect exterminator was planning to store pesticides near his home on Georgia Avenue in Washington, he wanted to fight the move, but didn't know how. He logged onto his computer, and posted a message to the Takoma-DC e-mail discussion list, asking for advice.
Within 24 hours, McPherson's online neighbors provided him with compelling information on the toxic chemicals in question, tips on how to lodge a protest with the city's bureaucracy and offers to help. McPherson and his neighbors mobilized so quickly and effectively that the District government, not known for its efficiency, denied the exterminator's application in no time flat.
"To communicate quickly and effectively has proven the true benefits of this list," McPherson e-mailed his neighbors. "We have our command-and-control weapon: this list."
Value of online networks supported by research
Microsoft did a study to measure the value of neighborhood networks. A letter was sent to households in the North London borough of Islington, England, offering free computers, an Internet connection, technical assistance, and a special web site for their neighborhood. Microsoft wanted to create a living case study to explore how the Internet would affect a real, local community -- as opposed to a "virtual community" existing only in cyberspace. Before the study began, most people said they knew only a few of their neighbors; after 18 months of communicating online with their physical neighbors, many of the residents said they felt much closer to their local community, and knew many neighbors well. (For a report on the study, see The New York Times article.)
Two University of Toronto sociologists conducted a three-year study of the impact of an online network on a nearby suburb. They found that an e-mail network and web site for the neighborhood led to more community involvement, enhanced security, closer neighbors, more activity, more friendships, and better overall communication.
Some people still think that communication over the computer is too impersonal. To them, the notion of a "virtual community" is simply further proof that their physical community is vanishing. But the Internet is more than just another organizing tool, more than a telephone or a photocopier.
By enabling convenient, rapid communication that transcends time and space and geography, the Internet greatly expands the number of people who can participate, who can offer their "two cents' worth," and who can be mobilized.
But not everyone has a computer, and some people are computer phobic. Does that cut them out of this new activism and perhaps cause new divisions in the community?
McPherson worries that it might. "Many of our neighbors [in Takoma-D.C.] do not have access" to the 'Net, he said. "Such a situation does create an unfair advantage whether we care to admit it or not."
"I was more enamored of it in the beginning and saw high hopes for it, but am currently struck by the fact that it is a very limited group," says Jody Bloom of DC-Takoma. "I like the passing of information, especially regarding crime. It's a great way for neighbors to stay in touch. But a few hundred out of several thousand seems extremely limited. What we need are more folks who are highly committed, and willing to back up their commitment with long, hard volunteer hours . . . by leading free classes, finding cheap and donated equipment and software, setting up computers at libraries and encouraging folks to use them."
McPherson says he doesn't know quite how to make the Internet fully accessible to those who can't afford it. Expanding access in libraries and schools can help. Creating more community computer centers like the ones established by National Urban Internet (NUI) may be another way. The center includes Internet access and classes to train low-income and unemployed individuals for jobs using computers. "We concentrate on those who are eager to learn, and who want to use computers and the Internet as tools for education, jobs and moving on," says John Rosenthall of NUI.
The town's email networks have grown gradually over the years, to reach perhaps 50 percent of the households in some neighborhoods. That's solely from volunteer energy and word-of-mouth, without any financial investment, aggressive marketing or institutional backing.
Nationally, however, probably less than 10 percent of neighbors participate in online networks. Developing and nurturing this nascent movement is the challenging task ahead.
- Yahoo Groups search of neighborhoods online.
- Neighborhood America
- Long-Branch Sligo (Takoma Park) Neighborhood online network (hosted on Yahoo Groups).
- Takoma Park's more than 100 online discussion groups and hundreds of web sites
- Etakoma.com weblog or blog site.
- Microsoft study of London neighborhood (The New York Times article).
- Toronto sociologists' study.